Books of the Year · Reviews

My Books of the Year 2020

Yes, it is that time of year again. As I prepare to kick 2020 firmly out of the door (and good riddance to it indeed), the time has come to look back on my reading year and think about the books that really stood out as highlights for me.

And, on the reading front at least, 2020 really has been an excellent year! Being stuck at home has at least given me more time to read. And, for me anyway, books have provided a solace and support in this otherwise trying and difficult year – you are, after all, never alone with a good book. In a year that has required staying local (and often staying indoors), books have also allowed me to travel vicariously through their pages.

As a result, I’ve had my best reading year for a while – a total of 104 books read! I’ve also found myself much less slumpy this year – possibly as a result of giving myself more freedom to read by whim and allowing more time to savour and enjoy my reading, and almost certainly because of all the lovely book chats that I’ve got involved with on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook! Lockdown might be rubbish but it’s been so nice to be part of the book community during it and to get involved in online book clubs and reading challenges with fellow book lovers.

Continuing in this spirit of freedom – and in an effort to continue spreading the book love far and wide – I’ve therefore decided not to limit my Books of the Year to an arbitrary number. So instead of my usual ’round up’ post of my top 5/6 books, I wanted to share with you ALL of my favourite and recommended reads of 2020, along with a few words about why they’re brilliant and a link to my full review.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, let’s go!!

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

A magical historical romp featuring a child returned from the dead, a photographer, a pub, and – of course – a river. With the story beginning at New Year, this was one of my first books of 2020 – and definitely one of the highlights of the year for me! Full review available here.

The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore

A devastating novel of forbidden love and social hierarchy, the world of the eighteenth-century is bought vividly to life in this sexy, dangerous romp of a novel. With one of the most memorable ending paragraphs I think I’ve ever read, there was no way that Mr Lavelle wasn’t making it onto this list! Full review available here.

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

A book that combines fascinating figures and scholarly rigour with Greg Jenner’s trademark humour, this is the perfect read for anyone interested in celebrity, fandom, and the eighteenth-century. Shelf of Unread catnip essentially! Full review available here.

A Curious History of Sex by Kate Lister

Another fascinating non-fiction read, this time looking at the history of sex and sexuality. Kate Lister brings scholarly rigour and deft social commentary to bear on her topic, whilst retaining the wry humour that has made her @WhoresOfYore Twitter account such a joy.

The Quickening by Rhiannon Ward

Crime writer Sarah Ward’s first foray into historical fiction provided a page-tuning country house mystery with a pinch of the gothic and supernatural. More Shelf of Unread catnip and a joy to read from first page to last. Full review available here.

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

A historical detective novel with a difference, Things in Jars features a mysterious – and possibly magical – child, a pipe-smoking female detective, and the ghost of a dead boxer. Defying genre expectations and revelling in the playfulness of its prose, this was an absolute treat of a novel and perfect for devouring over a long weekend. Full review available here.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

A powerfully imagined exploration of family, love, motherhood and grief, Hamnet is one of the few novels to have made me both laugh and cry in 2020. Just as magnificent as everyone says it is. Full review available here.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Honestly the only reason I haven’t reviewed this yet is because I am still trying to find the words for it. A magnificent intergenerational story told from twelve perspectives. Fully deserving of every one of the accolades given to it.

A Tomb with a View by Peter Ross

A surprise hit on audio, this book about graves and graveyards manages to talk about very sad things without ever feeling sad. Instead the book is poignant, touching, and deeply hopeful. Perfect 2020 reading.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

A slice of everyday life encapsulated within pitch-perfect and elegant prose, Sarah Moss’s masterful novella – set in a series of isolated cabins on the edge of a Scottish loch – provided the perfect allegory for lockdown life whilst exploring the tensions and fractures that lie underneath society’s surface. Full review available here.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Smart, witty, and immensely pleasurable, Richard Osman’s first foray into fiction provided the perfect mix of mystery, comedy, poignancy, and compassion. Full review available here.

The Booksellers Tale by Martin Latham

Written by a bookseller, Martin Latham’s exploration of our love affair with books covers an eclectic list of topics. From marginalia to comfort reading, street bookstalls to fantastical collectors, if you love books and bookshops then you’re sure to find this a fascinating and comforting read.

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

Another genre-bending romp from the author of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. Mixing history, mystery, supernatural horror, and suspense, Stuart Turton once again keeps the pages turning as a mysterious voyage goes badly wrong. Full review appearing on The Shelf shortly!

Deity by Matt Wesolowski

The latest in Matt Wesolowski’s Six Stories series isn’t out in paperback until 2021 (although it’s out now as an ebook) but I managed to get hold of a copy in preparation for the blog tour and let me tell you that it does not disappoint! I devoured this one in about 24 hours – a page-turning mixture of top-notch plotting, compelling mystery, and chilling events. Full review appearing on The Shelf soon!

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

By turns poignant and passionate, joyful and comforting, Dear Reader is an ode to books and book lovers. Combining memoir with reading recommendations, this was the perfect book about books for 2020. Full review available here.

Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

A pair of riveting mysteries with twists to rival Agatha Christie and a unique ‘novel in a novel’ structure, both of these were diverting and engaging reads. Full reviews available here and here.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The book that got me back into YA! With a gripping plot, a clever mystery, a little light romance, and some fabulous characters, this was a page-turning and entertaining read. I can’t wait for the sequel in 2021! Full review available here.

The Cousins by Karen M McManus

More YA, this time involving a hideously wealthy family, a small airport’s worth of emotional baggage, and an exclusive island home hiding a multitude of dark secrets. Fun, entertaining, and suspenseful, this has made me want to read more of McManus’ work. Full review available here.

Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

There’s nothing like a good sensation novel to curl up with as the nights draw in and Lady Audley’s Secret has it all – secrets, danger, illicit romance, possible murder, madness, arson! An absolute romp of a book, this classic is perfect for fans of Wilkie Collins.

On The Red Hill by Mike Parker

A beautiful combination of social history and personal memoir, Mike Parker’s On The Red Hill tells the tale of Rhiw Goch (‘the Red Hill’) and its inhabitants: Mike and his partner Preds and, before them, George and Reg. It’s also the tale of a remarkable rural community, and the lush prose and vivid descriptions took me straight back to the Welsh mountains and reminded me of the importance of home.

And we’re done!! Do let me know if you’ve read any of these – or if you have them on your TBR! Here’s to having another excellent reading year in 2021 – and to leaving some of the less pleasant aspects of 2020 far behind us. Thank you for sticking with me and with The Shelf through 2020. Wishing all of you a safe, peaceful and happy new year – see you on the other side!

If you’re tempted to treat yourself after reading this post, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!!! Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Moonflower MurdersRetired publisher Susan Ryeland is living the good life. She is running a small hotel on a Greek island with her longterm boyfriend Andreas. It should be everything she’s always wanted – but is it? She’s exhausted with the responsibilities of making everything work on an island where nothing ever does, and truth be told she’s beginning to miss her old life in London.

And then a couple – the Trehearnes – come to stay, and the story they tell about an unfortunate murder that took place on the same day and in the same hotel in which their daughter was married, is such a strange and mysterious one that Susan finds herself increasingly fascinated by it.

And when the Trehearnes tell her that their daughter is now missing, Susan knows that she must return to London and find out what really happened …

Having recently read (and LOVED) Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, his first mystery to feature Susan Ryland and the Atticus Pünd novels, I was surprised to find myself approaching its sequel, Moonflower Murders, with some trepidation. The premise of Magpie Murders – and it’s intricate interweaving of the two plots at its heart – was so unique that I was just a little worried that Horowitz wouldn’t be able to pull off the same magic twice.

My worries were, however, unfounded. Moonflower Murders more than lives up to the expectations set by it’s predecessor. Using the same ‘novel in a novel’ premise as Magpie Murders, Susan Ryland finds herself once again embroiled in an eerily familiar mystery when she is asked to investigate the sudden disappearance of hotelier Cecily Trehearne. Eight years before, the Trehearne family’s hotel, Branlow Hall, had been the site of a brutal murder that ruined Cecily’s wedding day and resulted in the arrest of one of their staff for murder. But it appears that Cecily didn’t think the outcome of the case was correct. Cecily’s chance reading of ‘Atticus Pünd Takes the Case’ seems to have sparked a revelation. She knew what really happened to Frank Parris all those years ago. But it seems someone may have silenced her before she could reveal the truth.  As Susan arrives back in England, she finds herself once again confronting the legacy of Alan Conway, and turning to yet another Atticus Pünd novel to find the clues to a real-life mystery.

What I really enjoyed about both Magpie Murders and Moonflower Murders is the way in which Horowitz moves so deftly between the two stories. Interconnections – some obvious and some fleeting – are woven between the two plot lines and there are tiny details and word games hidden within the book that can, with some thought, lead the reader to the truth behind the crime.

The worry with having a ‘novel within a novel’ is always that you’ll find one story more enjoyable than the other but with both of these books I was utterly hooked by both plots – initially desperate to get back to Susan’s investigation at Branlow Hall when the Atticus Pünd novel takes over, within a few pages I was completely hooked on Atticus’ own investigation into the murder of a famous actress at the Moonflower Hotel! Writing two such engaging and interesting plots is no mean-feat and it’s part of what makes these novels so very enjoyable for mystery fans.

I also liked the development of the main characters. Susan and her partner Andreas certainly become a lot more fleshed out in Moonflower Murders, and I was pleased to find some returning characters from Magpie Murders as a nice little nod to the previous book. I also felt that the supporting characters were a little more tangible in this novel – although the cast is still a large one, they felt a little more distinguishable in terms of traits and motivations.

As with Magpie Murders, I do still have one or two concerns about some of the characterisation in the books. Horowitz certainly tries to be diverse in the contemporary section of his novel but I didn’t find any of the representation to be particularly positive. I found it disappointing that the only black character in the novel (or at least, the only character directly identified as being black) – a returning character that I had some issues with in the first book – is an aggressive racist, for example. I was also a unsettled by the fact that the LGBTQ+ characters all seem to end up being flamboyant stereotypes or sexual predators. I’m not saying that authors should only write ‘nice’ POC and LGBTQ+ characters – diversity of representation is vitally important and there is, of course, no one way to write about lived experiences – but I did find the overall negativity of the portrayals here somewhat jarring and, if I’m honest, rather stereotypical.

That was, genuinely, my only issue with Moonflower Murders though and, that aside, I very much enjoyed this second slice of ingeniously plotted mystery, which comes replete with the usual plethora of red-herrings and suspicious goings on.

Fans of Magpie Murders are sure to love returning to both Susan Ryland and Atticus Pünd and, for newcomers to the series, the mysteries work perfectly well as a standalone (although you should go and read Magpie Murders too – it’s a lot of fun!) and is sure to keep you turning the pages long past your usual bedtime!

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz is published by Century and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ish, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 

 

 

Back from the Backlist · Reviews

Back From The Backlist: Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie MurdersCrime writer Alan Conway has been a bestselling author for years. Readers live his detective, Atticus Pünd, a celebrated solver of crimes in the sleepy English villages of the 1950s.

But Conway’s latest tale of murder at Pye Hall is not quite what it seems. Yes, there are dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects, but hidden in the pages of the manuscript lies another story: a tale written between the very words on the page, telling of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition and murder. 

The worst thing about my latest Back from the Backlist is that I always knew that Magpie Murders would be a book that I would really enjoy. A literary mystery that centres around the world of writing and publishing, features an author who has created a pastiche of the Golden Age, and contains a novel-within-a-novel – clearly this was always going to tick all my boxes.

I can only assume it has taken me this long to read it (my paperback edition tells me I picked the book up in 2017. Yes, really) because I was worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my expectations. As is usually the case, this fear was unfounded and Magpie Murders proved to be as delightful a read as I had hoped when I bought it.

Describing Magpie Murders is a bit of a challenge because this is one of those novels that has a novel-within-a-novel. For much of the book you will be reading Magpie Murders: An Atticus Pünd Mystery by Alan Conway, which sees consulting detective Atticus Pünd travelling to the sleepy English village of Saxby-on-Avon following the death of, firstly, the housekeeper at Pye Hall and, shortly thereafter, the lord of the manor himself. Book-ending Conway’s novel is the story of Susan Ryland, Conway’s editor at Cloverleaf Books. Susan has been looking forward to reading Magpie Murders and opens it with relish, little realising that the book – and its author – are going to drag her into a mystery that will change her life forever.

Saying any more about the plot would be to spoil Magpie Murders. In order to maximise your enjoyment of the ingenious twists and turns, I’d strongly urge you to go in knowing as little as possible if you’re thinking of picking this one up (do read to the end of this post though – no spoilers, I promise!). Amidst a wry pastiche of the classic English mystery novel are some brilliant cliffhangers and head-scratching puzzles that cleverly subvert your expectations, and the way in which the two plots eventually combine makes for a highly enjoyable twist ending.

I had one or two small reservations about the book in terms of characterisation. Given that there are essentially two plots in Magpie Murders it’s probably not surprising that some of the minor characters end up being little more than pen portraits, especially in Susan’s narrative. There were, however, some characters that I felt could have doubled up – or been dropped altogether – so slight was their part. And, whilst it’s vitally important to have diversity in books – certainly not something that is easy when you’re attempting to pay homage to ‘classic’ crime – Horowitz’s depiction of diverse characters felt more like tokenism than representation to me.

I hasten to add, however, that these are relatively minor niggles. The characters who are fleshed out are a delicious blend of the pleasant, the quirky, the underhand, and the utterly horrid (what’s a good crime novel if there isn’t at least one person who’s deplorable), and the setting – both in sleepy Saxby-on-Avon and in Susan’s literary London – is wonderfully evocative. I raced through the book despite it’s length (a fairly chunky 464 pages) and am now eagerly anticipating the sequel, Moonflower Murders, released later this year.

All in all, Magpie Murders does require a bit of patience to stick with the two plots and glue the whole thing together – I imagine some readers might find the central premise to be a bit too clever for its own good – but for anyone looking for a modern novel that can rival Agatha Christie in terms of fiendish plotting, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Fans of classic crime fiction would be missing out on a treat if they failed to pick this one up!

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is published by Orion and is available now from all good booksellers. 

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, and Berts Books

The book is also available from online retailers including Hive, Waterstones and Book Depository